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Teach Out, Touch Faith

“When it comes to education, too often the public dialogue focuses on negatives,” says Lisa Smulyan ’76. “I want us all to better understand the tensions and possibilities—the full story—so we can support the good work while challenging the problems.”

Swarthmore’s Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor of Educational Studies still believes in the transformative power of good teachers—and of a strong infrastructure behind them.

“I wouldn’t have been doing this for 42 years if I didn’t believe we could fix education,” she says. “I’m not willing to give up, and I’m happy when other people choose to be a part of it, too.”

How does teaching education feel?

It’s unbelievably depressing, and has been for years. This is not a Trump effect, but from years and years and presidents and presidents and decades and decades of underfunding and misplaced regulations and structures that work against the abilities of people who are trained to do good work.

What makes Swarthmore a special training ground for teachers?

When I told my dad—who is a doctor—that I was going to be a teacher, he said, “You’re smart, you went to Swarthmore, so why would you do that?” There are still parents who say the exact same thing to their Swarthmore students. The liberal arts philosophy itself is about learning to think, share, and work with others to answer complicated questions. It sounds very lofty, but it’s the perfect foundation for teaching.

What programs are you involved in?

Swarthmore belongs to the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education, a coalition of about 20 colleges and universities with teacher education embedded within the liberal arts. As a spin-off of a Ford Foundation grant to that organization, I work with a cohort of Philadelphia teachers called Teachers Write Now. We write, publish, present, meet as a support group, and run leadership institutes. I also run the Teachers as Scholars program, where public-school teachers come to campus to attend seminars in a variety of disciplines, everything from poetry to ecology to statistics to prison work. This year, we’ve opened it up to our partnership schools in Philadelphia.

Describe Swarthmore’s educational studies department.

We’ve made much more explicit our commitment to community partnerships as part of our scholarship and our teaching. For example, Ann Renninger works with the Radnor Watershed Program at the local middle school. Edwin Mayorga brought his Education in our Barrios Project to Philadelphia, working with several communities and schools.

What makes you proud of your department?

We embed our teacher certification and training in the broader study of the institutions, processes, and issues around education, and we connect our broader studies in the field to practice. That way, the teachers we train have this incredible depth of understanding of education’s role in society, and our students who don’t become teachers experience the complex intersection of theory and practice.

What can we do to improve the state of education?

We need to encourage people who come to places like Swarthmore to go into education, but I don’t think they all need to be teachers. No matter what field you go into, an understanding of how education—a crucial institution in society—has gotten you there and left others behind is beneficial. And then we need resources flowing in. Imagine if Philadelphia had taken all the money that went into the Eagles parade and given it to our public schools.